They now have the chance to qualify for a second successive major finals. What sorcery is this?
"Steve Clarke’s Barmy Army!" the fans chanted like a mantra on a chilling night in Moldova as Scotland marked the year anniversary of reaching Euro 2020 with another party 900 kms east of Belgrade. A game on Monday against group leaders Denmark meant the players left the fans to boogie down the boulevards of this rather charmless Soviet era-city.
Recognising there is still much work to do, the celebrations from the players at the end seemed notably restrained. They did salute the fans, whose partying had to be put on hold for 15 minutes before they were let out. A Tannoy announcement cited security reasons for the delay. They were not in a hurry to leave in any case.
Clarke even permitted himself a slightly out-of-character wave at the fans during the game itself after this had been insisted upon. The last time Scotland were here, under Berti Vogts in 2004, players were spat at as they arrived at the airport after a 1-1 draw. Changed days indeed.
Billy Gilmour, John McGinn, even Stephen O’Donnell when he came back out to warm down after spending the game on the bench, were all hailed.
Such scenes appeared unlikely as recently as September when the Scots were played off the park by Denmark having already dropped points at home against Austria. Clarke, however, refused to panic. He predicted there would be twists and turns to come and so it transpired. Denmark’s quality saw them annex top spot in the group leaving Scotland to fight it out for second place with Austria and Israel. Clarke’s side, seeded third, have achieved the best that could realistically have been expected at the start of this campaign. They have done so with a game to spare after a 2-0 win - their fifth competitive win in succession.
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Nathan Patterson took the business of scoring a goal into his own hands seven minutes before half-time to help quell some anxiety after watching those further forward struggle to put the ball in the net.
The 20-year-old Rangers right wingback has emerged as a player of real worth this year and he burst back into life after recent inactivity at club level to settle Scotland’s nerves. His even younger teammate Billy Gilmour was involved in the goal after clipping a pass into McGinn, who fed Patterson. Clarke didn’t find these players, indeed he received some criticism for resisting turning to them in the Euro 2020 opener against Czech Republic. However, he is reaping the rewards of showing faith in them now.
The irrepressible Patterson drove in the cross from which Scotland scored their second goal after 65 minutes through Che Adams. The Southampton forward converted from a few yards out to put some daylight between the visitors and their 181-ranked opponents.
There was still time for Craig Gordon to distinguish himself. Patterson handballed as he attempted to clear and the Serbian referee Srdjan Jovanovic was asked to consult his pitch-side monitor. After an interminable wait a penalty was given. Ten minutes remained. More than enough time to score and score again. The Moldovan fans, few though they were, erupted in delight. Defender Veaceslav Posmac, who had earlier cleared a Liam Cooper header off the line, shook his fist at the stands.
This opportunity clearly meant a lot to the hosts but they failed to take it. It was almost possible to sympathise with them. Gordon got a strong hand to Vadim Rata’s effort and the ball looped in the air. Kieran Tierney bravely completed the job of clearing by sliding in to knock the ball behind before Moldova could profit from the rebound.
A potentially nervy finale was averted. In truth, Scotland produced a professional performance that flew in the face of those who had expected they would do their damnednest to make a hash of things against opponents with so little to lose.
It was the oddest of atmospheres. Perhaps 1200 Scotland supporters and a few hundred home fans. An austere-looking block of flats jutted out of the gloom on the far side of the ground. A completely shut stand reflected the scale of local indifference after a sustained run of poor form. This is expected to be manager Roberto Bodin’s penultimate match in charge.
The pitch was certainly an improvement on the last time Scotland played in this city. The grass glistened pleasingly. However, the ball just would not run for the visitors before Patterson, tiring of the ineffective efforts of teammates, powered into the box to receive McGinn’s pass. He took a touch and then slammed a left-footed shot into the net. That was the way to do it.
Scotland had been beginning to look as if they were losing their way. An Adams goal was chopped off for off-side but McGinn should have finished when he had the chance earlier in the same move.
The veteran goalkeeper Stanislav Namasco beat away Gilmour’s powerful effort, clawed out Stuart Armstrong’s shot and blocked Andy Robertson’s drive at his near post. Concern grew that he had chosen this night to have the match of his life.
He didn’t make the best save of the first half however. That accolade went to the even more veteran Gordon. The 39-year-old marked his return to Chisinau, where he had earned his third cap 17 years earlier, by tipping skipper Artur Ionita’s header over the bar. These were slightly worrying times.
The smattering of home supporters began to make themselves heard. Clarke had expressed “hope” before the game that his decision to slightly tweak the system would work. Armstrong and McGinn were playing off Adams and all three had chances. Adams was proving particularly wasteful.
He was eventually rewarded for his persistence before making way for Jacob Brown, whose international career began in earnest. These are memorable, heady days for Scotland. Everyone is wanting in on the action.